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Are ‘water positive’ pledges from tech companies just a new kind of greenwashing?

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Corporate America is making a new kind of climate pledge. In recent months, multiple tech giants have pledged to use their reach and resources to join the fight for water conservation. Facebook made an announcement at the end of August declaring their efforts to “be water positive by 2030.” And just this week, Google made a similar announcement to make its data centers more efficient and support water security in the communities it operates in. 

Google, Facebook, and several other companies have promised to put more water back into the environment than they pipe in—an exchange they call “water positive.” This means they plan to cut the amount of water needed to run their facilities, while protecting natural waterways and preserving access to clean drinking water in drought-prone areas. The math is based on the number of gallons they want to restore, not newly produced H2O. Both Facebook and Google have also promised to share their conservation research and tech with others.

Their timing makes a lot of sense. Many Western states are experiencing water shortages this year. Last month, officials announced a water shortage for the massive Lake Mead reservoir after a 22-year-long drought in the region. Federal officials soon followed with unprecedented water cuts for about 40 million people who rely on the Colorado River, which feeds Lake Mead. 

Water stress is also a global issue—more than a billion people worldwide lack steady access to clean water, according to the World Wildlife Fund. While this is often due to infrastructure issues, climate change has also changed precipitation patterns, causing more droughts and floods that affect vulnerable communities. 

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Given the current state of the planet, it’s only fitting that corporations like Facebook and Google change how they use up water and other vital resources, says Pamela Chasek, a professor and chair of the political science department of Manhattan College, who has also commented on past corporate climate pledges.

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“Tech companies use a lot of energy and water for their data centers,” she explains. “We can’t deal with climate change and water scarcity without the contributions from the corporate sector.”

[Related: Cutting water consumption requires more consideration than you’d think]

A 2020 report by Data Center Knowledge found that Google operates more than 20 data centers around the world. Facebook, meanwhile, has seven data centers in the US. The social media company has also announced that it will open more data centers this year. 

“The typical data center uses about 3-5 million gallons of water per day—the same amount of water as a city of 30,000-50,000 people,” Venkatesh Uddameri, professor and director of the Water Resources Center at Texas Tech University told NBC News earlier this year. Much of it is used to chill the giant servers, machine learning systems, and other hardware the companies run around the clock.

Both Facebook and Google say they’re testing out ways to cut down the water used to cool these data centers. “For example, we deployed technology that uses reclaimed wastewater to cool our data center in Douglas County, Georgia,” Google Sustainability Officer Kate Brandt writes in an email to PopSci. “At our office campuses in the San Francisco Bay Area, we worked with ecologists and landscape architects to develop an ecological design strategy and habitat guidelines to improve the resiliency of landscapes and nearby watershed health.”

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In its pledge post, Facebook noted that it uses “onsite recycled water systems” at some global offices. The company also stated that it’s developed technology that enables “data centers to be cooled with outside air,” allowing them “to operate 80 percent more water efficiently on average compared to the industry standard.”

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For the other end of the “water positive” equation, both companies say they’ve sought out local partners to meet their new water sustainability goals. Google writes that it’s “working with the Colorado River Indian Tribes project to reduce the amount of water that is withdrawn from Lake Mead reservoir on the Colorado River in Nevada and Arizona.” Meanwhile, Facebook points out that it’s providing funding “to the Rio Grande Water Fund to restore the connection between the stressed Cedro Creek and its historic floodplain.”

Water usage has long been a concern as large tech offices and data centers compete with area residents (people and wildlife) over limited water supplies in drought-prone areas. The friction has only intensified in recent years. In 2017, multiple South Carolina-based conservation groups criticized Google for its plans to draw more than a million gallons of water per day from the depleted Goose Creek watershed. The corporation ultimately struck a deal to draw 5 million gallons per day from another aquifer.

When asked if the water pledges felt like greenwashing, Chasek says it’ll depend on how Facebook and Google are held accountable and how transparent both companies are when implementing the actions behind their promises. 

“One of the interesting things with the Facebook project is that they’re working with NGOs and other organizations in terms of partnerships,” she explains. “These partnerships can determine where best to do water-restoration work, [which] is one piece of that accountability. How are they investing in these water restoration projects … particularly like in the western US where we’re seeing the highest amount of water stress? Those projects need to see a lot of scrutiny.” 

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[Related: What companies really mean when they say they’re ‘net-zero’]

Jim Murphy, an assistant professor and the environmental advocacy clinic director at the Vermont Law School, agrees that major tech companies should be held accountable for their sustainability claims by outside organizations or even governmental agencies. But he argues that while it makes sense for powerful industries to help with water management, policy is the best way to manage responsible use of natural resources, especially in communities hard hit by climate change.

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“The problem with private companies, even if they’re publicly owned … is they have certain obligations to their shareholders,” he says. “These are not accountable entities or entities that are created [through] public interest.” 

That kind of decoupling is especially important as fossil fuel companies like BP, which helped to exacerbate climate change through greenhouse gas emissions, launch “water positive” campaigns of their own.

“Making sure that we properly protect the entire watershed from pollution and destruction is paramount,” Murphy continues. “The Biden administration has taken some steps in this direction, and they really need to continue that through.”

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Facebook-Meta Earns the ‘Worst Company of 2021’ Title in This Survey

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Facebook has had its share of controversies this year. The company was under more scrutiny after whistleblower Frances Haugen leaked a series of internal documents.

Facebook parent Meta has been named the Worst Company of the Year (2021) by Yahoo Finance respondents. According to the publication, an “open-ended” survey was published on Yahoo Finance on December 4 and 5, where 1,541 respondents participated. Facebook received 8 percent of the write-in vote, but respondents were seemingly mad about the Robinhood trading app as well. Electric truck startup Nikola, which was named last year’s worst company by the same publication also faced respondents ire.

Yahoo Finance notes, “Facebook has had its share of controversies this year.” Starting in January, Meta-owned WhatsApp got caught up in a huge controversy after the messaging app announced a new privacy policy (Terms of Service). WhatsApp said it would collect user information and share it with third-party apps for a better user experience. However, the app gave users no choice but later made modifications to the policy under pressure. Similarly, the company was under more scrutiny after whistleblower and former Facebook employee Frances Haugen leaked a series of internal documents showing the company’s problematic practices. It was revealed that Meta-owned Instagram had a negative impact on teenage girls, but the company did almost nothing to rectify the problem.

Yahoo Finance even highlights, “At the same time, some critics, including conservatives, say Facebook over-policed the platform’s speech and stifled their voices.” Critics also blame Facebook and other social media platforms for not curbing hate speech that led to Capitol Building riots.

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However, around 30 percent of Yahoo Finance readers said that Facebook or Meta could redeem itself. One respondent suggested that the company could issue a formal apology for negligence and donate a sizable amount of its profits to a foundation to help reverse its harm.

On the other hand, respondents chose Microsoft as the Company of the Year (2021). The Satya Nadella-led company touched the trillion-mark this year and introduced notable upgrades. The most notable is the Windows 11 OS update that succeeds Windows 10.

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Facebook pays 1.7 Cr fine to Russia after failing to delete content Moscow deems illegal

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In the latest legal tussle with Russia over controversial social media regulation laws, Facebook paid 17 million roubles (Rs 1.7 Crore) for failing to remove content deemed illegal by Moscow. With a threat of potential larger fines looming, Facebook parent company Meta, owned by Mark Zuckerberg, is scheduled to face court next week over repeated violations of Russian legislation on content, Interfax News Agency reported. As per the latest updates, the social media giant could be fined a percentage of its annual revenue.

In October, Moscow sent state bailiffs to enforce the collection of 17 million roubles. Meanwhile, as per Interfax report citing a federal bailiffs’ database, on Sunday, there were more enforcement proceedings against the company. Apart from the popular social media app, Telegram has also paid 15 million roubles in fines for failing to comply with the Russian social media legislations that came into force in 2016.

Facebook pays $53k to Russia for refusing controversial social media laws

It is pertinent to mention that Facebook has locked horns with Moscow earlier in November, resulting in it paying 4 million roubles ($53,000) over its refusal to adhere to Russian data localisation laws, the Moscow Times reported. The Moscow court on November 25 had said that Facebook paid the fine levied in February, following which all proceedings against the US-based social media giant. The payment comes against the litigation filed against the company in 2018, alongside Twitter. The tech companies were also forced to pay an additional 3000 rubles ($40) for failing to comply with user data sharing rules as per the law. The Russian authorities have also previously blocked LinkedIn, owned by Microsoft, for failing to abide by the laws.

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Russian social media laws

As per Moscow Times, under the Russian social media regulation laws, all foreign technology companies are required to store data related to Russian customers and users on servers located in Russia. Additionally, the Russian tech companies will also have to share encryption data with the federal authorities as well as record user calls, messages and civil society group conversation records. The apparatus is said to be a severe breach of privacy rights and unfettered back-door access to personal data that could be used to harass Kremlin critics.

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Facebook Messenger Is Launching a Split Payments Feature for Users to Quickly Share Expenses

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Facebook Messenger Is Launching a Split Payments Feature for Users to Quickly Share Expenses

Meta has announced the arrival of a new Split Payments feature in Facebook Messenger. This feature, as the name suggests, will let you calculate and split expenses with others right from Facebook Messenger. This feature essentially looks to bring an easier method to share the cost of bills and expenses — for example, splitting a dinner bill with friends. Using this new Split Payment feature, Facebook Messenger users will be able to split bills evenly or modify the contribution for each individual, including their own.

The company took to its blog post to announce the new Split Payment feature in Facebook Messenger. 9to5Mac reports that this new bill splitting feature is still in beta and will be exclusive to US users at first. The rollout will begin early next week. As mentioned, it will help users share the cost of bills, expenses, and payments. This feature is especially useful for those who share an apartment and need to split the monthly rent and other expenses with their mates. It could also come handy at a group dinner with many people.

With Split Payments, users can add the number of people the expense needs to be divided with and, by default, the amount entered will be divided in equal parts. A user can also modify each person’s contribution including their own. To use Split Payments, click the Get Started button in a group chat or the Payments Hub in Messenger. Users can modify the contribution in the Split Payments option and send a notification to all the users who need to make payments. After entering a personalised message and confirming your Facebook Pay details, the request will be sent and viewable in the group chat thread.

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Once someone has made the payment, you can mark their transaction as ‘completed’. The Split Payment feature will automatically take into account your share as well and calculate the amount owed accordingly.


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Tasneem Akolawala is a Senior Reporter for Gadgets 360. Her reporting expertise encompasses smartphones, wearables, apps, social media, and the overall tech industry. She reports out of Mumbai, and also writes about the ups and downs in the Indian telecom sector. Tasneem can be reached on Twitter at @MuteRiot, and leads, tips, and releases can be sent to tasneema@ndtv.com.

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